Syrian Loyalists 'Will Continue To Fight' For Assad

The Syrian government threatened to walk out of this week's peace talks, adding fuel to already tense negotiations. For more on what impact the talks could have on Syrians, guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal, and the University of Oklahoma's Joshua Landis.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, we'll hear the story of a 14-year-old African-American boy who was executed back in the 1940s. Now a South Carolina judge is taking another look at that case, and we'll tell you why in a moment. But first, world leaders are gathered in Switzerland this week. They're trying to broker peace in Syria. But those talks might already be on the verge of collapsing with the Syrian government today threatening to walk out.

To tell us more about the peace process and the situation in Syria, we were joined earlier this morning by Farnaz Fassihi. She's a senior Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. She joins us by phone from Beirut in Lebanon. And also with us, Professor Joshua Landis. He's the director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and he joins us from member station KGOU. Welcome to both of you.

JOSHUA LANDIS: It's great to be here.

FARNAZ FASSIHI: Thank you.

HEADLEE: Let me start with you, Joshua, because so often we hear of this kind of diplomatic talks sort of happening and nothing really concrete comes out of them. How significant - or I guess, how effective could these talks be?

LANDIS: Well, the talks are very important. The Syrian war has been going on now for three years. One-third of the population - that's about 8 million people - have been displaced. And, you know, this is a major humanitarian disaster. Getting the actors to Geneva to begin to talk is a great accomplishment because it means that they recognize there has got to be a political solution. But the two sides are still very far apart. The U.S. started out this conference, Secretary of State Kerry, saying that there needed to be regime change in Syria, that Assad had to stand down and that there should be some kind of transitional government established.

Assad has said that that's not going to happen. The reality on the ground is that the Syrian regime owns about half the country, the opposition in the other half of the country. And the real question, I guess, is whether they're going to work for a cease-fire and accept half a loaf or whether both sides want the whole loaf. The Assad regime wants to reconquer Syria, and the opposition wants regime change and to destroy Assad. We'll see whether they can compromise and come to half a loaf or they stick with a whole loaf.

HEADLEE: Well, let me play a little clip here from remarks by Secretary of State John Kerry who spoke in Geneva earlier this week. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

JOHN KERRY: The resolution to this crisis cannot be about one man's insistence or one family's insistence about clinging to power. This needs to be about empowering all of the Syrian people.

HEADLEE: So, Farnaz, there doesn't seem to be any ambiguity there about who John Kerry, as the representative of the United States, is blaming, to a certain extent. What is the feeling of people at least where you are on Beirut and some of the Syrians that you've spoken with?

FASSIHI: You know, people in Lebanon, and also many Syrians, are divided. And I think that's part of the problem is that they don't have a unified view of how this conflict should end or what should come after the conflict ends - what kind of a post-Assad country do they envision. You know, Mr. Assad still has supporters inside Syria. He has supporters among the Lebanese-Shia and he - of course, he has many, many who oppose him.

A lot of people who are kind of in the middle ground are terrified of there being a security vacuum after - if Mr. Assad steps down - and the al-Qaida terrorist groups that are operating in the opposition strongholds might take over. So, as Josh said, the views are very, very different, and there's no middle ground right now.

HEADLEE: Well, let me bring this back to you, Joshua. You wrote an op-ed for Al Jazeera, and you said that Assad actually holds most of the power in these talks. Why do you say that?

LANDIS: Well, his army is very powerful. Everybody thought that he would collapse within months, and, you know, President Obama said that he had to step aside. And he hasn't lost. He has an Air Force. He has artillery. He has tank forces. And he's been pounding the opposition. And that's why there's been so much destruction. The real question is, is the opposition willing to compromise with Assad? I don't know if Assad will accept a compromise, but that's what these talks would have to be about is, do you find a half a loaf, and is half a loaf better than going on with this war for a few more years in order to try to get the whole loaf? And that's really the dilemma that confronts the world today because much of the world thinks that Assad is a horrible killer. And Kerry said that as long as Assad is there, it's a magnet for terrorism.

They've defined this as a problem of Assad, in which case, America needs to go in there and destroy him, which America has refused to do for three long years. We know that Obama is not going to send in the U.S. Air Force. So then you have to seek a compromise, and that's the difficult thing to do. And we're not near language of compromise yet.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, we're checking in on the Syrian peace talks in Switzerland going on now. We're joined by Professor Joshua Landis from the University of Oklahoma. And also with us is The Wall Street Journal's Farnaz Fassihi. Farnaz, let me bring that back to because you're talking about how the people of - at least in Lebanon and many of the Syrians you talked to are split. And to a certain extent, the Syrian government does not accept that there is such a thing as a post-Assad Syria. I mean, that's, to a certain extent, what Joshua is talking about here. For them, there is no compromise.

FASSIHI: Right, there's no compromise. Mr. Assad gave an interview to Agence France Presse this week in which he said that he plans to run for election, and that if the people of Syria and his supporters want him to be a candidate, he will be. And he also said that, in his view, the conference in Switzerland is not about discussing a transfer of power, but it's about discussing terrorism. So you already have a nonstarter because in the view of the opposition, at least the branch of the opposition that is now at the talks, having any future in Syria where Mr. Assad or any of his family members are present is unacceptable.

They say that Mr. Assad has blood on his hands. He has allegedly used chemical weapons on his own people. There are over a hundred thousand people that have been killed in this conflict. So they don't want to have Mr. Assad or any of his power circle involved in a transitional government. Now, you know, this is the first time that the government and the opposition have even agreed to meet or to sit at the same table. So perhaps this is just the first step. We are very far from reaching a point where there could be a political deal to this conflict, but at least the first step has been taken.

HEADLEE: Also, Professor Landis, the Qatari government has released some very graphic photos that it says proves the Assad government is engaging in torture. Are those photos expected to change anything in Switzerland at least?

LANDIS: Well, they have. They've changed the tenor of the talk. They've given a boost to the opposition that is saying that this is a morally reprehensible regime and that we need regime change. And that's the question. The question is - he, you know, we've - anybody who's watched Syria knows that he's tortured people. This is common throughout the entire Arab world. He's doing it on a much larger scale in the middle of this civil war, and he's, you know, executing prisoners. And that's the dilemma that faces the world.

Do they accept that Assad survives in his part of Syria in order to stop the war and try to stop the outflow of refugees and the constant, you know, upheaval? Or do they think that if they go on for another year or two, it'll be worth it in order to try to destroy him? And that's - you know, that's what we're at the table trying to figure out.

HEADLEE: And, Farnaz, you're in Lebanon, although we've gotten reports that the conflict in Syria is essentially spilling over, not just with refugees, but with fighting spilling over the border into Lebanon. What are you seeing there?

FASSIHI: Lebanon's been a target of sectarian attacks and explosions. In the past month, we've had about a car bomb a week, mostly targeting the Hezbollah strongholds where they Shias are. Those are the supporters of Mr. Assad. There was a political assassination killing a very high-level Sunni politician who opposes Mr. Assad. So we've seen clashes in the north along border towns and now in security in Beirut. Therefore, the spillover violence from Syria is already happening in the Middle East. Iraq was very turbulent not long ago where, you know, al-Qaida groups linked to the Syrian fighters took over parts of Ramadi in al-Anbar. So, you know, we've - we're actually now seeing the fallout of this war. And if it goes on longer, it will create even more regional problems.

HEADLEE: So, Farnaz, what is the best case? I mean, we've talked about how we're kind of in a place where there's not a lot of negotiating room in Switzerland. So what's the best-case scenario that could come out of these peace talks?

FASSIHI: I think the best case scenario is that the two sides actually talk to each other and that they hear one another's views and that they, you know, at least agree to have more talks and to try to work to do find a middle ground. And I think that, you know, supporters of Mr. Assad - state supporters of him, such as Russia and Iran, could do more to put pressure on him to agree to stepping down or naming a transitional government.

HEADLEE: Joshua, what do you think the best case could be?

LANDIS: Well...

HEADLEE: Assuming the Syrian government doesn't walk out.

LANDIS: Right. Well, Assad's not going to step down. That's very clear. He spent three years fighting to keep his regime alive. And he represents an important section of the Syrian population. He represents the Alawites, who are 12 percent. Most Christians in Syria support him. And so do other smaller sects. So - and wealthy Sunnis as well who have stuck by him. This - it's not going to go away. Those people are going to fight for him, and they have been fighting for him. And that's why the war has gone on. Russia and Iran support him. You know, Iran and Saudi Arabia have to eventually sit down and agree.

And before they agree - because they are the big money providers to both sides, they're the big arms providers - before they agree on what kind of Syria they can accept, if they can accept to divide Syria somehow or find a middle ground that they can both live with, it's hard to see when - that either of these actors are going to begin to compromise. It takes regional powers and the superpowers. And that's where Kerry and Lavrov can bring a lot of pressure to bear. We're just at the beginning of this process. It's going to take a long time.

HEADLEE: And we should mention that Iran was invited to the peace talks and then uninvited. Whether or not those kind of negotiations between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia and any of those other partners are going on is not known. That was Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma. And we also spoke with Farnaz Fassihi. She's senior Middle East correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. Thanks so much to both of you.

FASSIHI: Thank you for having us.

LANDIS: Pleasure.

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